I first read Babel around 1996 and his personality and prose style always stuck with me – the weird combo of grimness and good humor and the simple, unfussy and unexpected way he put words and images together. Also, he has a little aphorism about writing (in the context of the story this comes from he’s actually talking about translation, but it applies to writing) that I love:
A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm and you can only turn it once, not twice.